Thanks to his Odd Future affiliation, a popular mixtape, and a featured appearance on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, Frank Ocean was already fairly popular in certain circles in early 2012. After he dropped Channel Orange that summer, however, he quickly morphed into a legitimate superstar.
Channel Orange was an exceptional record, mixing soul music, psychedelic rock, and hip-hop so well that all one could do when the album had ended was listen to it all over again. I remember being amazed at the time that it and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City had both come out in the same year, because both were outright classics.
Channel Orange sold well, was praised by just about every critic under the sun, and earned Ocean four Grammy nominations. He even played “Forrest Gump” at the actual Grammy ceremony, leaving some viewers in awe while confusing others.
And then … Frank went quiet. There would be teases that a new album was coming, but then nothing but more silence. Last week, though, that silence ended as Ocean released both a visual album, Endless, and Blonde, the official studio follow-up to Channel Orange. (The album cover says Blond, while the name is listed Blonde in many other places. I’ve chosen to follow the example set by Genius.com and refer to it as Blonde until Frank publicly chooses one over the other.)
I honestly can’t comment on the quality of Endless, because I haven’t seen it. I’ve listened to Blonde a lot, however, and while I’m sure my opinions will change after even more listening, I do feel like it’s been enough that I can share some basic thoughts. So that’s what’s going to happen, friends! Are you ready?
First thing’s first: Blonde is a very good album, perhaps even a great one. The music is much different from what we heard on Channel Orange, though one can certainly tell this is the work of the same songwriter, and Ocean’s voice is as strong as ever. Blonde is also a deep album, not in the sense that every lyric is full of mind-blowing wisdom, but in its numerous layers. It’s so deep, in fact, that you almost have to listen to the whole thing twice just to cleanse your palate and get around to truly experiencing it. Songs that sounded odd at first begin to make perfect sense; quirks that stood out are now a part of the record’s flow. (In this way, it’s sort of the polar opposite of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo; I love that album, but the songs I loved when I first heard them are still my favorites, and the songs I disliked at first are still my least favorites.)
One of Blonde’s greatest moments is the record’s opening track, “Nikes,” which features a dark, brooding beat and Ocean’s voice pitched up for the first three minutes. By the time he actually sounds like himself, the song has already made its impact, grabbing you by the brain and intoxicating you with its raw, rugged emotion. To me, “Nikes” is the ultimate example of how this album takes time to sink in … my initial reaction to the track was immediate disappointment, but I love it now, and it’s an absolutely perfect opener.
Another clear highlight is “Self Control,” which features gorgeous vocals over a slow, clean guitar line. It’s much more complex than your typical ballad, however, with those vocals constantly changing pitch and the song taking a dramatic turn about two minutes in, when a heavy bass part and an electric guitar make their presence known. And then the final 45 seconds or so of “Self Control” stand out as much as any 45 seconds on the whole record: I, I, I, Ocean sings, Know you gotta leave, leave, leave/ Take down some summertime/ Give up, just tonight, night, night.
After “Self Control,” three of the next six songs are short interludes or skits, somewhat taking away from the flow of the second half of the album. Someone telling a story about Facebook, for instance, seems so out of place that I find myself immediately reaching to skip ahead each time it begins.
You can’t skip around too much, though, or you’ll miss “Solo (Reprise),” which features Andre 3000 (remember him?) ripping one of the best verses you’ll hear all year. Seriously, folks, if nothing else, seek out this song! The world needs more Andre verses.
HIs appearance fits the album perfectly, too, because a lot of Blonde is filled with Love Below-like vibes, especially on another highlight, “Pretty Sweet.” Crazy production? Check. Kids singing? Check. I don’t know how else to say it, folks; this thing is bizarre, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The final third of Blonde is fairly mellow. You can obviously digest this thing in any way that works for you, but if any album was made to listen to on headphones, late at night, it’s this one, especially the last run of material.
“White Ferrari,” featuring Bon Iver himself, and the inspired gospel of “Godspeed” are two tracks near the end of Blonde that take the album to a whole other level. “Futura Free” is technically the final track, but “Godspeed” is a flawless album closer if I’ve ever heard one.
Overall, this is one hell of a record, though not the one you were expecting when you first pressed “play.” And that’s OK! This is forward-thinking R&B of the highest order. I’m still digesting Blonde, and I will be for a long time, but I recommend that everyone check it out for themselves. You’ll be glad you did!